Tropea, a small town on the east coast of Calabria, in southern Italy / Nemanja Peric on Unsplash

Harvard’s Professor Robert Putnam achieved global recognition 20 years ago for writing Bowling Alone, which charted the gradual decline of community and social capital in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century.

Yet he had been doing groundbreaking work decades before this, when the young social scientist was living in Italy in the early 1970s where he was trying to answer the ancient question of why some governments succeeded while others failed.

In a stroke of good luck for which students of history should be thankful, in a break with the tradition from Italian unification onwards, the national government of Italy established new regional governments in the 1970s and granted these regions a wide range of powers and responsibilities in areas like health, housing, urban planning, agriculture, and infrastructure.

Tens of thousands of new administrative positions were created and thousands more employees were reassigned from the central bureaucracy to the regions, with major financial reallocations occurring as well: the total funds available to the regional governments went from roughly US$1 billion in 1973 to roughly $9 billion in 1979, and $65 billion in 1989.

For Putnam and his collaborators Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Nanetti, this presented a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the regions’ performances.

Over the next two decades, the researchers carried out a thorough assessment which involved waves of interviews with regional councillors and community leaders, specially commissioned nationwide surveys, experiments to test government responsiveness to citizen inquiries, and a close analysis of a wide variety of statistical measurements of institutional performance.

The book which was published in 1993, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, is perhaps Putnam’s greatest contribution to the field of social science.

The authors’ conclusions were remarkable in many ways.

In Italy, the 1970s was a tumultuous decade blighted by some of the worst violence in the Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead): the period of widespread street violence and terrorism which lasted from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s.

Putnam and his colleagues found that the establishment of regional governments helped to bring about a “remarkable ideological depolarisation, coupled with a strong trend towards a more pragmatic approach to public affairs.” It appeared that dealing with issues of governance at a regional level helped both right-wing and left-wing politicians to moderate their positions and reach accommodations. Public support for the regionalist reforms was also found to be strong.

What was most striking, however, was the authors’ assessment that regional reforms were exacerbating the historical disparities between Italy’s North (where the new regional governments worked well) and Italy’s South (known as the Mezzogiorno).

Many examples of the ineffectiveness of the Southern regional governments are cited here.

Although generous funding was made available by the central government to establish day care centres, implementation of the policy varied greatly, to the point where in 1983 there was one centre for every 400 children in Emilia-Romagna (where Bologna is), compared to one centre for every 12,560 children in Campania (where Naples is), and similar disparities were recorded between Northern and South regions when it came to family clinics.

In some cases, Southern regions were incapable of spending any money allocated to them for agricultural development or housing, let alone spending it wisely.

Innovative experiments — which involved Italians approaching government bureaucrats with requests for assistance in accessing services — showed that Northern governments were generally responsive to queries from citizen queries, while their Southern counterparts were not.

Northern governments such as Emilia-Romagna also excelled at “legislative innovation” and passed new laws dealing with regional challenges, but regions such as Calabria were incapable of following suit.

The relative prosperity of the North could not explain these dramatic differences. In attempting to answer the puzzle, Putnam pointed to a more basic difference in the relative levels of social capital in the different regions and the degree to which regional populations were actively involved in their communities.

When the data was examined, a very clear picture had emerged.

Sports clubs were more common in the North, but so too was membership of other associations.

Newspaper readership varied dramatically, with 80 percent of households in Liguria (where Genoa is located) containing at least one daily newspaper reader, compared to a figure of 35 percent in Molise, to the south of Rome.

Voting turnout in referendums was lower in the South, as was union membership.

When all of this was taken together and when the “civic-ness” of Italy’s regions was compared visually, the Northern regions ranked highest, followed by the regions of Central Italy around Rome, while the Southern regions ranked at the bottom of the pile.

This map also bore a clear resemblance to a map of the Italian regions showing their institutional performance following the regional reforms. In the civically engaged regions, the new structures worked, but in the Mezzogiorno, they didn’t.

Putnam’s findings contradicted the common notion that large and advanced cities were dehumanising and socially isolating, as it appeared that the traditional villages of Southern Italy fared much worse than the sprawling metropolises like Milan or Bologna.

This had clear implications when it came to how Southerners approached politics, as the old patron-client relationships were stronger there. It also helped to explain the enduring presence of organised crime groups throughout the South, where mafiosi fed on widespread distrust and acted as middlemen and supposed protectors in environments where functioning institutions of authority were rare, and where people did not work together for the common good.

Venturing into the realm of historical enquiry, the authors suggested that these differences stemmed from the different political regimes which came into being on the Italian peninsula from around 1100 AD.

The Norman rulers of Southern Italy developed a feudal-type system which established a great distance between rulers and the great mass of struggling peasants. In contrast, a radically different system of city states sprang up in Northern Italy, where large numbers of people held political offices and where private groups such as guilds became common.

“Beyond the guilds, local organisations, such as vicinanze (neighbourhood associations), the populus (parish organisations that administered the goods of the local church and elected its priest), confraternities (religious societies for mutual assistance), politico-religious parties bound together by solemn oath-takings, and consorterie (“tower societies”) formed to provide mutual security, were dominant in local affairs,” Putnam writes.

And once again, the visual representation of this regional contrast on a map of medieval Italy bears a striking resemblance to a modern map based on social capital, with the communal republics overlapping with the civically engaged regions and the ‘Kingdom of Sicily’ occupying much of the South.

What is perhaps most surprising of all was Putnam’s assessment of the role of the Church in modern Italy, and this is worth reflecting upon when considering what role Catholics should play in the world around them.

As with all other types of association, there was a clear geographic divide in the “Social Catholicism” movement which came into being in the late 19th century. Putnam describes how the most influential lay organisation had 993 parish committees in the North of Italy in 1883-1884, 263 in Central Italy and just 57 in the South; which was no less Catholic in terms of religious affiliation.

But the problem of Catholic inaction was more serious than that according to Putnam and his colleagues. Catholicism in Italy constituted “an alternative to the civic community, not a part of it,” and the researchers that manifestations of religion such as Mass attendance were negatively correlated with civic engagement– over half of regular Mass-goers said they rarely read a newspaper and that they never discussed politics, leaving Putnam to observe that Italian churchgoers “seem more concerned about the city of God than the city of man”.

There is a sharp contrast between Putnam’s oft-repeated assessment that religious communities play a crucial role in promoting social solidarity in the United States and this assessment. He speculates that the situation in Catholic Italy could perhaps be a legacy of the Vatican’s Non Expedit policy which discouraged Catholics from becoming involved in political life in the newly-unified Italy.

Putnam has curiously little to say about well-known groups such as Communion and Liberation or Focolare, which likely inspire many Italians to play a deeper role in their communities and his view of Catholicism’s influence on political attitudes seems overstated: he certainly appears to overlook the importance of Catholicism’s social teaching in shaping the Christian Democratic movement which played a major role in “making democracy work” in Italy from the 1940s onwards.

What is abundantly clear from this book is the enormous importance of civil society in helping to make democratic institutions function, and the responsibility of each individual to play his part in fostering social connections.

Just as Putnam’s book remains an essential read almost 30 years after its publication, the ongoing problems faced by the South of Italy continue to stand as a warning to anyone tempted to disengage from the world around them, for that disengagement can have wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including...